By Lynn Brezosky - San Antonio Express-News/CBS News.com
Church in the partially submerged old colonial town of Guerrero Viejo that is a common sightseeing destination on the Mexican side of Falcon Lake on the South Texas-Mexico border. A U.S. couple was returning from the site Thursday afternoon when they were intercepted by gunmen on the lake. The husband was reportedly shot, his fate is unknown.
Gunmen presumed to be Mexican drug operatives opened fire today on a couple riding water skis on the binational Falcon Lake reservoir Thursday afternoon, possibly killing the husband and sending the woman fleeing frantically to the U.S. side.
Zapata County Sheriff Sigifredo Gonzalez said the couple, believed to be from McAllen, Texas, had crossed to the Mexican side when they came under a spray of bullets by two boatloads of men. The man, 30, was shot in the head and his wife said she fears he is dead.
According to unconfirmed reports, the woman circled back to get her husband but the gunmen continued shooting, even after she crossed back to the U.S. side. They saw them approaching and started revving it up back to the U.S. side,” Gonzalez said. “The guys just started shooting at them from behind.”
Gonzalez said the couple never spoke to the gunmen. He said the couple had ridden over to Mexico for sightseeing and to take photos of a famous church in Old Guerrero.
Gonzalez said he had contacted the Mexican consulate for help finding the husband. As of late Thursday afternoon, he was tracing down leads with the FBI, said Mary Pulido, a dispatcher fielding a barrage of press calls.
“I do know that it happened on the Mexican side, that's what's making the investigation very difficult,” she said.
However, one of the boats may have crossed to the U.S. side of the lake to fire at the woman, said Mike Cox, a spokesman for the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department. The shooting follows reports in May that boaters in the famed bass fishing oasis were at risk of being shaken down by “pirates” lurking on the Mexican side.
The 60-mile long Rio Grande reservoir is shared by the United States and Mexico, and due to its location along sparsely populated Starr and Zapata counties is believed to be a favorite location for trafficking drugs.
U.S. Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, who along with state Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City, recently traveled to the area for a briefing by the Texas Department of Public Safety on Falcon Lake dangers said that any gunfire that took place on the U.S. side of the lake , in some places demarcated by floating markers, would represent a serious step over the line for a drug war that's “getting out of hand.”
“These guys are getting very aggressive,” he said. “It's a significant incident, but it has international ramifications if the shots continued into our side. This was just a couple of people having a good time.”
Thursday's reported shooting comes during what may be the most deadly and prolonged streak of Mexican drug cartel violence in memory.
In May, the Texas Department of Public Safety reported several incidents of pirates shaking down U.S. boaters. The robbers in at least one case posed as Mexican federal law enforcement, searching fishing boats for guns and drugs and then demanding cash at gunpoint.
The DPS issued a statement warning people not to cross to the Mexican side of the lake. Boaters were encouraged to file a float plan with family members.
“The robbers are believed to be members of a drug trafficking organization or members of an enforcer group linked to a drug trafficking organization who are using AK-47s or AR-15 rifles to threaten their victims,” it said. “They appear to be using local Mexican fishermen to operate the boats to get close to American fishermen.”
Falcon Lake was formed by a dam in 1953 to conserve water for agriculture and control downstream flooding.
More news from the Texas border:
$3.1 million seized at McAllen border crossing.
By Lynn Brezosky - San Antonio Express-News
Houston Chronicle Staff Writer Dane Schiller
The bus passengers thought they were making a quick few thousand dollars just for carrying bags on a bus across the Texas-Mexico border. One was recruited in an Atlanta coin laundry, another at a nightclub and one more handed a bag from a stranger in Charlotte, N.C. Almost all knew they likely were carrying something illicit.
But although each of the 14 bus passengers nabbed in the largest Mexican border cash seizure this year had a different story, there was one thing in common:
Each of the passenger's bags contained a deflated Coleman air mattress rolled up around hundreds of thousands of dollars. All totaled, Customs and Border Protection nabbed $3.1 million, officials announced Wednesday.
It was a banner moment for the feds, who've been putting more and more resources into tracking what leaves the country as well as what enters.
The aim is to make it harder to get guns and illicit cash back to the cartel bosses waging an increasingly violent war over drug corridors through Mexico.
“The seizure of $3.1 million in undeclared currency and 14 arrests, the largest currency seizure by CBP in fiscal year 2010, is a magnificent achievement and serves as validation of our enhanced outbound enforcement effort,” CBP Commissioner Alan Bersin said.
A Justice Department spokeswoman said it would be speculative to say whether the cash, which showed up Sunday as odd shapes in X-ray scans at the Hidalgo-Reynosa International Bridge, had a common origin or destination.
The case differs from several large seizures on tour buses because the cash was dispersed and defendants claimed the bags. In previous cases, cash seizures have been reported without immediate reports of arrests.
Seven of the arrested passengers were U.S. citizens age 18 to 22; the other seven were from Mexico and age 40 to 51.
Bianca Tapia-Pineda, 20, said she and a friend earned $1,000 each and were to earn $7,000 more after traveling to Charlotte to pick up one bag each from an unidentified man. Her bag contained $234,940. But the friend, 50-year-old Mexican citizen Margarita Jones, carrying $229,000, said she made a deal with a woman she met while shopping.
Gabriella Hernandez, 18, said her brother enlisted her to take a bag she knew contained “something bad, maybe drugs,” to Mexico. She and her brother each pocketed several hundred dollars before boarding the bus with expectations of thousands of dollars more. The bag she claimed contained $220,160. Her brother, Jobanni Hernandez, had a bag containing $220,140.
Maria Urieta, a 48-year-old Mexican citizen, said a stranger approached her at an Atlanta laundry and offered her $700 to transport a bag. She told a special agent with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement she thought the bag contained used clothing. It contained $230,000.
Alejandro Camacho, 22, said a man at the Rumba Club in Atlanta paid him $500 to carry a bag with clothes and an air mattress, though “he figured it was money.”
They and the others were charged Wednesday with conspiring to evade currency transaction reporting requirements following an ICE investigation into the matter.
It's illegal to carry more than $10,000 in or out of the United States without making a declaration.
A detention hearing is set Friday in federal court in McAllen.
The passengers were on an Autobuses Tierra Caliente coach, which appears to be based near Dallas, but made stops there as well as in Atlanta, North Carolina, Austin, San Marcos and Laredo.
Those arrested still are in custody. The bus was not seized and the driver wasn't charged. The company is not accused of wrongdoing.
It is unclear why all the couriers were on the same bus and why CBP and ICE inspectors decided to examine it.
Mike Vigil, a retired ranking Drug Enforcement Administration agent, now the executive director of ManTech International, a global logistics and information technology firm, said it was absurd to smuggle this way.
“I would never, ever put all my eggs in the same basket,” he said. “Whoever hired them and whoever gave them instructions, were probably neophytes.
“An organization that has been doing this for a long time is not going to put 14 individuals, all carrying money, on the same bus.”
Said John Morton, director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement: “This seizure puts smugglers on notice.
“ICE and CBP are working shoulder to shoulder to deny criminal organizations money they use to further their illicit activities and threaten public safety.”
The fourteen passengers arrested and charged are:
Jonathan Nathan Gaona
Rene Fernando Espinoza-Borjas
Pedro Sanchez Aviles
Jacinto Magadan Cuevas
Margarita Patricia Jones